...is Richard Declan Beecher, of County Waterford, my maternal grandfather. We never met; he died when my mother was just 13.
In this undated photo, he's probably in Brooklyn*, not Ireland; he emigrated as a young man in 1898 and made a good living as a Ford Model T salesman. He was clearly a dapper dude; he was also, my mother and her sister recalled, an adoring father, a charming conversationalist, and a tragic alcoholic. (From their descriptions, he is uncannily like Francie's dad in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.) I tell more of his story here.
My grandfather always dreamt of returning to Ireland, my mother recalled, but he never made it. We did, driving south from Dublin through Waterford, where my mom saw the resemblence to the rolling New Jersey countryside that provoked such nostalia in her father on their weekend drives. (She refused to stop and search for family geneology in local churches: "My father wanted to get away from the whole damn lot of them," she said.)
The first song lyrics and melody I can ever remember hearing are just a fragment, haunting and vaguely defiant, sung in my mother's husky contralto as she fixed dinner, me a toddler playing at her feet:
- Yet the strangers came and tried to teach us their ways
- And they scorned us just for bein' what we are
- But they might as well go chasin' after moonbeams
- Or light a penny candle from a star.
- Who were these strangers, I always wondered, and why didn't they like us? What was a penny candle, and how did you hold it close enough to a star to set it on fire? It would be years before I learned that the song is a chestnut called "Galway Bay," written in 1947 and crooned by Bing Crosby for sentimental Irish-Americans, the sort of thing being sung in pseudo-pubs all over town today. My personal Irish-American history comes down through memory lit by moonbeams, full of shadows and fleeting glimpses, and little seeming connection to green cupcakes and the rest.
- *Where is Grand-dad in this old picture? Someplace I dearly love...the mystery solved here.